Comment Voting: Ars Technica’s new solution to shills and kooks

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For many news sites, reader comments add extra insight and a sense of community. Unfortunately, comment sections are also a playpen for cranks, hucksters, fanboys and conspiracy theorists.

At Ars Technica, a site popular with brainy tech types, such commenters have become a nuisance for both readers and editors.

“We’ve seen a real influx of readers that are a little different than who we had before,” said editor-in-chief Ken Fisher. “The signal to noise ratio really plummeted.”

Finally, Ars had enough. This week, the site responded with a new brand of “comment voting” to separate the clever from the crackpots. It’s based on the up-or-down system popularized by sites like Reddit but also includes some special twists of its own.

For one, Ars doesn’t privilege comments that receive a lot of up votes by moving them to the top of the pile, which Fisher believes can distort the discourse. Nor does the system use threaded comments, which can encourage long, tedious insider exchanges.

What Ars offers instead is a simple score that lets people quickly identify wheat and chaff as they scroll through the comments. So far, the system has helped to flag astro-turfers (ie disguised PR people who write things like “I just love the new Kindle XYZ”) through negative scores.

More intriguing is what happens next. As Fisher explains, low scores will cause a comment to fade to grey and, if the score is really low, it will disappear altogether. The idea is that trolls and pitchmen will quickly get discouraged and migrate to other sites. Meanwhile, Ars is also introducing a star system that will let readers quickly scroll to the good stuff.

So what to make of all this? My initial impression is that Ars has hit on a effective way to crowd source comment quality. One question, though, is whether there is a risk of fostering the hive mentality and group think that can infect even the smartest sites. For instance, would an intelligent pro-SOPA, copyright advocate simply be voted out of existence?

According to Fisher, “it’s not what people say, it’s how they say it that earns the votes,” meaning unpopular opinions will have a fighting chance. He also notes that Ars has a history of rehabilitating trolls by conveying that their message is welcome as long its is expressed appropriately.

Finally, there is the question of the fanboys — Apple or Samsung-living busybodies who spend their days in pitched battle with one another on comment boards. Won’t the votes of each set of partisans simply cancel out the other and leave the rest of us to sit through the squabble? Fisher says we’ll have to wait and see.

(Image by Robert Kneschke via Shutterstock)

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